Thursday, December 8, 2011

Remembering Pearl Harbor Day

Most of us can recall September 11, 2001. But where were you December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting U.S. entry into World War II?

Okay. You probably weren’t alive 70 years ago, and those who were likely were too young to remember anything meaningful about the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “will live in infamy.” But as I pondered how to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day yesterday, I realized my regular Wednesday chore of delivering Meals on Wheels in Yonkers would bring me face to face with women who were in the prime of their lives when our nation’s security and relative tranquility ended one Sunday seven decades ago. There wasn’t time for long interviews, just a few questions about how they experienced the war years.

With her marriage scheduled exactly one week later at a synagogue in the Bronx where she lived at the time, Sally picked up her wedding gown December 7. Her marriage to Sol went on without a hitch, but within six months her husband entered the army. She was 20 years old. Like many brides of servicemen of that era, Sally followed her husband around the country as he underwent basic training, first in Hattiesburg, MS, then in Baltimore. After Sol shipped overseas to fight in Italy, Sally moved back in with her parents. She worked as a clerical assistant to an army lieutenant at 55 Beaver Street in Manhattan. Her husband returned safely after the war, as did her two younger brothers who served in the Pacific theater.

Another 20-year-old, Shirley, lived in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, with her widowed mother and 10-year-old brother. Shortly after the war began, her mother developed viral pneumonia. Her doctor recommended an extended stay in Florida, so the family trained down, no small feat in those days when travel was largely restricted to moving military personnel. They stayed in Miami Beach for six months. After returning to Brooklyn, Shirley’s friend got her a job as a clerical assistant in a costume jewelry company. A short while later she was promoted to showroom saleswoman dealing with resident buyers for stores throughout the country.

The youngster of the trio I interviewed, Gertrude was 19 when she listened to the radio reports of the Pearl Harbor bombings. A high school graduate who eventually became a full charge bookkeeper, she hadn’t been able to secure a job before the war, but shortly thereafter obtained one at the Wright Aeronautical plant in Woodridge, NJ. Each morning another worker would pick her up at her home in Inwood in upper Manhattan. They’d drive across the George Washington Bridge to work. Because of her mathematical bent she was chosen to be a precision inspector for assembled impeller shafts, a critical part of the engine of B-29 Superfortress bombers.

After several B-29s crashed, the cause was determined to be faulty impeller shafts. Assembly of the plane engines halted until re-inspection of all impeller shafts could be conducted. As each impeller shaft bore the mark of the inspector who processed it, it was not difficult to pinpoint who had approved faulty production. Over the loudspeaker of the plant, Gertrude was summoned to the manager’s office high above the assembly plant. While she climbed the steps to his office, co-workers whispered she was the guilty inspector. Not a comfortable moment for a young woman not yet 20. Gertrude was told that of all the impeller shafts re-inspected, hers alone were perfect. Henceforth, only she would inspect impeller shafts. The other precision inspectors would be reassigned. She would work six days a week. When she wasn’t there, production would stop.

It was that way for about 18 months, until the Japanese surrendered. That day, Gertrude recalled, Wright Aeronautical announced that the 17,000 employees who had worked three shifts at the Woodridge plant need not come back anymore. Their jobs, the nation’s job of defeating Japan, and before that Germany and Italy, had ended.